A Short Novel for the Weekend: Colette’s “The Vagabond”

Last spring, I did not require a soporific cup of Ovaltine at bedtime, nor did I pop a daring over-the-counter sleeping pill.   After 10 minutes of reading Proust’s self-indulgent musings in Sodom and Gomorrah (Book IV of In Search of Lost Time), I fell into a deeply bored, dreamless sleep. The character Albertine was  back, and I wished the narrator would hurry up and decide whether she was his girlfriend or a lesbian.  But no, he went on and on and on and on.  Finally I dismissed Proust as a  boring old droner who had only one good book in him – Swann’s Way.

And then I turned to Colette, my favorite French writer of the 20th century, who may be underrated these days because her short, lyrical,  decidedly feminine novels often take the form of  irreverent meditations on love.  People tend to think a sprawling  novel in need of a very strict editor is more impressive than a short, concise, perfect novel.
                 

Colette was a celebrity writer, an actress, a music hall artist, bisexual, and married thrice.  My favorite of her books is The Vagabond, a charming, witty novel based on Colette’s experiences as a traveling music hall artist.  The narrator, Renée, is divorced and a former writer, who has found peace in the routine of the theater and enjoys her financial independence. She describes her life backstage and onstage, the eccentricity of her colleagues, and her blissfully solitary home life with her dog, Fossette.
 
Renée captures her experiences succinctly and gracefully.  From her dressing room she writes:  

It’s absolutely freezing in here!  I rub my hands together, grey with cold under the wet white which is beginning to crack.  Good Lord!  the radiator pipes are icy; it is Saturday and on Saturdays here they rely on the high-spirited popular audience, rowdy and slightly drunk, to warm the auditorium.  No one has given a thought to the artistes’ dressing-rooms.
 

This is primarily a theater novel, but it is also the story of a love affair.  Renée has an admirer whom she calls Big Noodle: he keeps sending her notes and flowers, though she does nothing to encourage him.  Divorced and traumatized by her first marriage to a famous philandering painter (Colette’s first husband was a famous philandering employer of ghostwriters),  she does not want a relationship with a man.

You know how it is when you’re in your thirties and single.  You tell your friends you don’t want to meet anyone, and still they arrange blind dates. Friends and fate conspire against Renée.  They worry that she will be lonely as she ages.  And they think Maxime is a good egg.  Renée jokingly thinks Maxime is the courtesan, doing nothing, while she goes out to earn her daily bread.  She finds it ridiculous that he doesn’t work.  And she is determined to go on a 43-day spring tour in France with her co-worker, Brague, and a young man they call “the troglodyte.” 


  I love Renee’s descriptions of life on the road in the many letters she writes to Maxime.  Spring arrives, and she is enchanted by the sudden appearance of flowers (all of which she knows by name) and takes long walks in parks.  And she is not at all sure she wants to exchange her solitude for wifehood. 


We love Colette’s novels because her characters are shrewd and vulnerable at the same time, as women usually are.  But in one of Colette’s later books about a middle-aged women (Break of Day may be the one I’m thinking of), she admits that she and her fictional counterparts diverge in their choices. Colette is not Renée.

A Little-Known Colette Novel and a Famous Ode of Horace

I like to read eclectically.  This weekend I read Colette’s short novel, The Other One, and Horace’s Ode I.Xl,  which urges us to live in the present and carpe diem (seize the day).  

I know perfectly well that you will all prefer reading about Colette, so I’ll start with that.  But I also tacked on my  prose translation of the ode at the bottom of the post.  

The Other One, one of Colette’s lesser-known books, is included in a 1951 omnibus, Short Novels of Colette, which has a 57-page introduction by the novelist Glenway Westcott.  Westcott’s introduction is the liveliest essay I’ve read on Colette,  just as wonderful as Judith Thurman’s biography.

Westcott declares Colette “the greatest living” French writer. (She died in 1954.)  He writes, “I know that in critical prose, as a rule, the effect of the superlative, greatest, is just emotional…. Greater than Mauriac?  Greater than Martin du Gard, Jules Romain, Montherlant, Sartre?  Yes, of course.  But I have not had the zeal to read or re-read that entire bookshelf for the present purpose; nor do I imagine that the reader wants any such thorough and fanatic work.  Let me not pretend to be able to prove anything.  Let me peaceably point to… Colette’s merits, here and there in her work.”

The heroine of The Other One is the intelligent, sensual, lazy Fanny, who has been married for 12 years to Farou, a well-known playwright.  The novel appropriately unfolds rather like a play, characterized by pitch-perfect dialogue, vivid women’s chit-chat, and reactions to a letter.  The letter triggers the subsequent events.

During the unbearable heat of a  summer in the country, Fanny spends her days reading novels, napping, and eating gooseberries.  She is teased about her overeating by her friend Jane, who helps manage the household and is Farou’s secretary.  Meanwhile, Fanny’s stepson, Jean, has spent the summer quietly stalking Jane, on whom he has a crush.

The women are waiting for a letter from Farou, who is in Paris working with the director.   Fanny reads the letter aloud and is amused by his references to an actress:  she gathers he is having an affair, one of many.  A sophisticated woman still loved by her husband, she  dismisses the dalliance as insignificant, but Jane is tense and brittle: her reaction seems over-the-top. Later, Jean confirms Fanny’s  fear that Jane and Farou have had an affair.  It is a nightmare for Fanny.

The most important aspect of a Colette novel is never the plot:  it is the lyrical style, the details of women’s lives, the little things one never knows one has noticed. It resonates when Fanny feels stung seeing Jane lounge in a chair reading a novel.  (“It’s my novel,” and she proceeds to list the other things Jane has stolen:  her husband, her stepson. etc.) In The Other One, there are also pages and pages of good-humored dialogue, delineating the women’s friendship.

This may seem a trivial situation, and Colette has written better about this elsewhere, but the emotional pain is universal. Nothing Colette writes is ever cliched. And the 1931 translation is by Viola Gerard Garvom is smooth, if not great English.

Horace, Ode I.11.  The first time I encountered the phrase carpe diem (seize the day) was in this ode by Horace.   Horace, or the persona of the poem, urges Leuconoë to stop worrying about about the future and seize the day.  I’d  remembered this poem as upbeat, and was disconcerted by the gloom.  Horace wrote several more cheerful poems about seizing the moment, but this is the first in which he uses the phrase Carpe diem.  

And here is my literal prose translation.

Do not seek–it is impious to know–what end the gods have given me, what end to you, Leuconoe.  Don’t try Babylonian astrology, either.  How much better to bear whatever will be!  Whether Jupiter allots more winters, or whether this is the last, which now weakens the Tyrrhene sea crashing against opposite cliffs, be wise, strain clear the wine, and cut back the hope of a long life in a short time span.  While we speak, envious time has fled.  Seize the day, trusting in the future as little as possible.

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